It’s more interesting than it sounds, I promise (like travel insurance). Let’s use all our senses (except taste) as we find out about the windy history of Japan…

The Divine Wind

How do you solve a problem like the Mongols??

Throughout history,
those pesky raiders stormed around the steppes on their horses, burning
villages and turning people into pin cushions. China dealt with them by
building a ruddy great wall, but what was Japan supposed to do? The sea held
the Mongols off for a bit, but they invaded in 1274 and made some good progress
inland before being driven back by the Japanese.

But the Mongols weren’t easily dissuaded, and figured that they just needed more troops. They’d brought roughly 17,000 – 25,000 men the first time, but for the second attempt in 1281 they travelled over with a combined force of 142,000 soldiers and sailors (according to contemporary figures – modern historians argue that around 70,000 is a more reasonable estimate, but either way it was a whole lotta Mongols).

Typhoon over Japan
Watch out, invaders – photo: Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center

Japan hadn’t been idle either, having built and occupied some impressive coastal defences, but the Japanese defenders got super lucky. Starting on August 15th 1281, a massive typhoon blew into the area and battered it for two days, sinking much of the attacking fleet. Some of the sailors could tell the storm was coming and sensibly scarpered for a nearby harbour, which unfortunately did them no good at all and the ships sunk regardless.

The Mongol invasion, hit by a typhoon
The Mongol army blows off

After seeing the very heavens themselves assail the would-be invaders, the Japanese named the storm Kamikaze or “divine wind.”  After their mauling at the hands of the storm, the Mongols limped back to the mainland and decided that maybe Japan wasn’t worth the trouble after all.

Samurai fart battles

It turns out that this is not the only time in Japan’s
history that wind has played an important role. It may have sunk their boats,
but the Mongols should just be pleased that the big storm didn’t come from the
same source as that shown in the He-gassen scrolls, which tell the tale of Samurai
fart battles.

A Samurai with a sword
Something’s brewing – a baggy-trousered Samurai

Now we only have a single source for this lost martial (f)art – a frankly fantastic set of scrolls which have been lovingly digitized by the Waseda University Library. The scrolls, which date back to the Edo period (1603-1868), are either by a single artist or a series of them working together, but sadly the name of these master storytellers is lost to the mists of time.

The scrolls show a number of rather dashing looking samurai taking on their foes with their own take on the ‘divine wind’. It’s clearly a fairly common skill, as the bad guys can often be seen tooting right back at them. And there are even cats and horses getting in on the action.

Section from the He-gassen scroll
No way to treat your pets – a parping Samurai

Sadly it seems that these windy contests of will didn’t actually take place (I know, I’m disappointed too), but were rather a satire on the xenophobic policies and attitude of the ruling Tokugawa shogunate. Though some argue that it was actually aimed at westerners and their growing influence on the islands of Japan.

Wind chimes

With all this wind rattling about, it’s perhaps not
surprising that the Japanese developed the wonderful furin wind chimes. These
beautiful chimes, made of glass, are a common sight and sound in Japan during
the summer, and are even part of government efforts to counter noise pollution.

Way back in the day, it was believed that strong winds brought sickness so a bronze, bell shaped chime knowing as a futaka was hung, which served as a warning bell for strong winds. During the eighteenth century glassblowing techniques were introduced from Holland, bringing about the furin.

A Japanese wind chime
A wind chime – neither silent nor violent – photo: Raw Nald

The glass bells have a strip of paper hanging from them, which catches the wind and moves the clapper, causing the wonderful sound, and also shows even slight breezes, helping you to feel cooler.

So there you have it, from storms saving the day, through
fart battles and finally beautiful glass chimes, Japan has a long and
interesting history with the wind.